American Horror Story: Massacres and Matinees

Posted on October 16, 2014

American-Horror-Story-Freak-Show-Season-4-Episode-2-Television-Review-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLOJessica Lange in FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show”


You guys, does the pacing on American Horror Story seem a little  … off this year?

Guys? Why are you all laughing?

For a second episode of AHS, it was a surprisingly slow and languid affair, which is not exactly par for the course with this show, at this point in a season.  Oh, wait. We forgot something. This is important.

Is that … PATTI LABELLE?  


Sorry. Gotta stand up for the Philly Divas (because, um, there aren’t that many). But really, how many people blinked a few times and turned to their couchmates to ask “Doesn’t that maid look familiar?”

Anyway, back to more serious matters, like mosh-pit-diving little people in circus tights and Angela Bassett utterling lines like “Three titties, girl parts and a dingaling!” Or even better, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s get you to come first.”

Dialogue like poetry.

In all (for real this time) seriousness, we detect an uncharacteristic slowing down of the storytelling this season, compared to previous years. This is normally the “pummel the viewer with every caffeine-fueled idea you have for the season at once” portion of the show, where it’s generally accepted that the creators are throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks. But – again, compared to other seasons – they’re letting this one take its time. We really shouldn’t be so foolish as to be optimistic about the outcome of this season, but we sense some confidence in the scripts this time, as if people know exactly where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. Please take all of this with a grain of salt, because history does not back us up on this, but it’s possible that Ryan Murphy & Co. have put together a season of AHS that isn’t going to veer all over the place wildly. No, wait. That’s overstating it. We’ll keep our rhetoric a little less naive: It’s possible that the writing team may not inject this tale with a whole bunch of wild side stories that never go anywhere, like they have in the past two seasons. It’s possible that they’re going to restrain their wildness to the central story by, say, having a deliberately (and wildly) anachronistic musical number each episode and treating the viewer to absolutely eye-popping art direction to set the tone, rather than narrative ADHD.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Okay, how about this: We’re on the fourth season, and it’s safe to say that there are strong thematic elements and motifs that have played out in every season so far. An older vs. younger woman rivalry, a family or social unit threatened by outsider authority figures and also an interloper within the ranks, murderers all throughout the cast of characters, at least one serial killer, and at least one serial killer fan. You can add to that lesser, performer-based motifs, like the deployment of an unusually wide range of accents for one show, Jessica Lange always playing a drag queen (complete with musical numbers), various musical divas making cameos (Stevie Nicks, Patti Lupone, Patti Labelle), and various women fighting over Evan Peters. Those have always been the core story elements that run through each season. What we find interesting is how quickly they’ve all been fulfilled in these first two episodes. Once again, it’s as if the writers might actually be a tad more focused this season. Maybe.

We’ve always maintained that this show was specifically about American fears and anxieties, from kinky gay sex to abortion to religious fundamentalism to slavery to serial killers. But looking over that list of motifs and noting how strongly they’re applying them this season, it’s time to revise that a bit. It’s really a show about American fears and anxieties as filtered through a very queer lens. Next to RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’re not going to find a more queer-culture-oriented show on television.

On to more specific, less philosophical matters. This was Evan Peters’ week to shine and he really went for it. Ryan must have felt he was owed a more articulate character after last season’s Frankenbro. The scene in the diner was top notch work from him. And Michael Chiklis dropped into the cast so effortlessly and in such a seismic way that we’re amazed this is his first time as an AHS player. At first glance he comes off like a stereotypical shot of aggressive male heterosexuality in a very diva-heavy cast of players, but that would be too simple for a Murphy joint. No, he’s a stereotypical shot of aggressive male heterosexuality whose wife is intersex and sleeps with gay men that he winds up killing in defensive rages. Because of course. What could be more American than that? Angela Bassett is a diva in every sense of the word, serving up 3-boobed Dorothy Dandridge realness and making the ridiculous lines written for her burn their way into your memory through sheer force of will. It’s taking us a while to warm up to Finn Wittrock’s sociopathic Richie Rich performance, to be honest. We think he’s trying too hard to hit the comedic beats of the character and not hard enough to hit the sociopath ones. Frances Conroy is off in her own little Douglas Sirk melodrama, playing a woman so completely detached from reality that Stabby the Clown can’t even be bothered to kill her. Lovely dining room, though.

The two most interesting performances so far are  Jessica Lange’s and Sarah Paulson’s. Jessica’s playing a hard bitch once again, but she’s giving such a curiously languid read on the character. This isn’t one of the nail-spitting bitches of previous seasons. Like all the AHS bitches she’s played, Elsa is a very wounded person, but unlike the other characters, she wears that hurt openly in every scene and you can hear it in every line. For the first time, she’s playing a truly sad character on this show. We appreciate the attempt to give her something a little different to do. We wonder if it’s because she looked so utterly bored playing that drag queen last season. As for Sarah, we can’t imagine how a performance like this, which had to have been incredibly demanding just on a technical level alone, doesn’t get an Emmy nomination. You can actually tell which sister you’re looking at just by the facial expressions.

And that’s it for now. We’re still in “wait and see” mode, but we can’t deny the astonishingly high level of entertainment so far.

Also: Stabby the Clown is sponsored by the American Dental Association. JESUS CHRIST, that is the scariest fucking clown. Kudos to the team for really ramping it up with this one. There are rarely any moments of true horror in American Horror Story, but Twisty is soul-chilling in every scene. We wonder if there’s any plan to actually integrate with him with the rest of the story or if he’s just going to run alongside it.

[Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX]

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